“The quickest way for anyone to reach the sun and the light of day is not to run west, chasing after the setting sun, but to head east, plunging into the darkness until one comes to the sunrise.”
I sat in the dust-covered room rummaging through vivid kaleidoscopic quilt toppers, my fingers rubbing the differing textures of the hand-stitched hexagon cotton shapes. They were carefully folded and set aside to one day complete, to be made into the whole. The day never came for her frail hands to piece the frayed edges into their variegated glory.
I visited their white wood plank home for over twenty years. Decades of summers were spent stopping by for a quick visit so they could see how tall we’d grown and sway on the metal mint green rocker on the concrete porch. Other times we’d gather pecans from underneath the cool overhang of giant trees, along the perimeter of their backyard. Usually, there was either a homemade five-layer cake or apple turnovers, which needed tasting. For certain, there was cornbread, with crisp brown edges that smelled of bacon lard. Piles of recipes were stashed away in her kitchen, but the very best ones were stored in her head.
This time, the visit to their small, unairconditioned home was different. The house had sat empty for some time, and I was no longer a little girl, but a college student. My great-grandparents were occupying a room across town in an assisted living home, giving the staff a run for their money. My great-grandmother was feisty, up until her dying day—quick-witted and funny. As a girl, I tried to slip past her love pats that left red marks, and were often followed by a little pinch or bite to the bare flesh of my arm. I have no idea why she did this, but it was her way of showing love. A painful way. I guess I might have some of that same spunk if I’d survived all she had, perhaps I’d bite my kids to show my fierce love. But probably not.
Those weekends spent sifting into years gone by– old black and white photos, bonnets, knick-knacks, bedding, dishware, and furniture– was awkward. It’s the fate of us all, isn’t it– a younger generation marching into our home like an army of ants to forage through personal belongings? The combing through of the entirety of someone’s life, stacking and piling what to sell and what to keep. Estate sales on the weekends to raise money to pay for assisted living.
We sorted pale peach Depression glassware, musty books, Naughahyde furniture, a Hope chest, and years of dishware. Someone wrote a phone number on a torn piece of paper and handed it to me—the number of an elderly woman in small clapboard house in rural Alabama. Weeks later, I perused the aisles of a fabric store, purchasing quilting batting, and eventually settling on a tan calico cotton for the backside. It was made whole years ago, that quilt—the topper stitched by my great-grandmother, the rest made complete by a stranger. To glimpse my children wrapped up tight like burritos in the hand-stitched beauty of their great-great grandmother brings joy to my heart.
In their early nineties, it was no surprise for them to walk into the arms of Jesus. It’s the younger ones that claw at my gut and rip my heart. I’ve seen three of my best friends from childhood go to the grave, much too young. My baby brother was in his early twenties, and my childhood friends were my first cousins on my mama’s side, both in their thirties. It seems too much to bear, a family losing so many sons. My parents losing one, my uncle losing two.
I was thirteen when my brother was born and have memories carved deep of rocking that bundled baby in the heirloom chunky brown rocker, his fawn-colored hair gently brushing my cheek with the rhythm. My heart is etched with a three-year old blond-haired brother on his birthday, small hands covering his eyes as he made a wish, three flames glimmering on the chocolate cake in the dark. And I forever carry with me the belly-aching laughter of family vacations, scouting deer and bear in Tennessee, snowball fights, and walking the streets of Chicago, where we glimpsed blue sky and rows of freshly tilled clouds between skyscrapers.
And my soul aches for my two cousins. As children, we navigated shadowed forest trails with four-wheelers and bare feet, ran amongst rows of corn, beans, potatoes, and melons that we picked straight from twisted vines. We’d bury our faces in the raw red pulp and black seeds of watermelons, the hot summer day ending with sticky faces, lightning bugs, and the serenade of crickets and cicadas. We’d ride bikes fast in thunderstorms, racing the sky—black clouds and pelting rain chasing us.
And yet we can’t outrun grief in this life. It’s inevitable, but hard, how life still goes on after death—the globe revolves, the sun still rises. The sepulchral cavity of the heart and mind awakens to the memory of a loved one gone–the blush of daybreak still comes, waxing pinks and oranges, the lilt of birds still serenade the day, and squirrels scamper from limb to limb, bristling tails and skirting the yard for food. It’s surreal—this cycle of life and death. Watching the normal world go on while we grieve.
In the face of loss, the normal life can feel wrong. Instead, it seems as if the ticking clock should halt, the clouds and sun blacken to honor our loss. As time goes on, memories can fade, just like ink on a newspaper page left in the sun, washed white. The brain may turns gears, rewind the days and years like the backwards leafing of pages in a book, endeavoring to recall the tone of their laughter, the outline of their face, the texture of their hair. I’m surprised by the things I remember, but more often than not, I’m undone by the things I’ve forgotten.
And yet we can’t outrun grief in this life.
That antithetical space between the first screeching squalls of bundled babe and that of the last gasping breath before going to the grave is an odd place. Some people say to move forward; yet, how can a person go on living the same when life has been shot through like a paper target, riddled with bullet holes? How can we advance into living wholly if we don’t gaze over our shoulder and grieve what was? There is no time limit for grief, and the walk into the dark pain is, in fact, necessary if we are to move forward. Our tender God welcomes our wrestling (think of Jacob). And, like David, our God is open to our lamenting. David cries out in Psalm 31:9 (ESV) “Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am in distress; my eye is wasted from grief; my soul and my body also.”
C.S. Lewis said, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.” That yawning, grasping, and aching doesn’t go unnoticed by our God. How grateful I am for a God who is well acquainted with sorrow, our bibles ringing out with the tremendous loss of His only son, as well as the heartache in the lives of His people throughout all time.
On this side of heaven, His promise of hope and peace can often feel ephemeral, when I forget His goodness–that first sin from the Garden can wrap my heart like a twisted vine, the sin of not remembering. As believers, we can grasp tightly to the promise that our last breath will usher us into the outstretched arms of the One who spins the earth on its axis.
The trusting and plunging into the darkness is not a waste, as it can lead to healing and a deeper walk with the Father. Even the times when the darkness seems to swallow us whole, we must remember He is with us and for us. Falling into His arms is sometimes the only movement we can muster, a daily free fall weeping and wailing into the arms of the One and Only Healer.
Holocaust survivor, Corrie Ten Boom, said it beautifully: “When a train goes through a tunnel and it gets dark, you don’t throw away the ticket and jump off. You sit still and trust the engineer.”  Oh, how difficult it can be sit and trust in those dark corners of our hearts. Yet, one day, in another life, the shattered and frayed ends of our lives will be made perfectly whole. By His immeasurable grace.
- Jerry L. Sittser, “A Grace Diguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss,” (Zondervan, 2004)
- S. Lewis, “A Grief Observed,” (Harper Collins, 1961) 3.
- Corrie Ten Boom, “The Hiding Place,” (Chosen Books, 2006).